Serge Betsen was regarded as one of the hardest men to play rugby for France. In a career that spanned 16 years, he played 63 Tests for France, 172 matches for Biarritz Olympique and 79 matches for London Wasps. He was considered small to be a flanker, but his ferocity and work rate on the field stood him apart from the rest. It’s often said that he had more than 200 stitches in his head alone. He earned himself the nickname la Faucheuse, the Grim Reaper, because of the way he scythed down opponents. The high point of his career came in 2002 when he was named France’s International Player of the Year after his significant role in France’s Grand Slam win in the Six Nations. Betsen was one of the few African-born players from Francophone Africa to play for France. He was born in Cameroon and emigrated to France with his mother and six siblings when he was nine years old. He played three Tests against South Africa, with France winning all three including a famous 36-26 win at Newlands on 24 June 2006 against Jake White’s men which ended a 13-match unbeaten streak for the Springboks. Sport 24 spoke to Betsen about the first Test between South Africa and France at Loftus, his time as a French international and how to grow rugby in Africa. – David O’Sullivan
What was your assessment of the first Test of the three-match series?
Serge Betsen: The first half at Loftus was an even affair and even though France didn’t dominate the game in terms of the scoreboard, they were still in the match until the final quarter. France made more ball carries (135) than South Africa (88) and also enjoyed more territory (60%) and possession (58%). However, the second half became very difficult for us when Brice Dulin was yellow-carded. I believe the sin-binning was the turning point in the match and ultimately cost us the game. France are definitely a better team than their eighth-placed ranking suggests, but it’s not a surprise to see them in that position given the results we have had over the last few years. However, I was definitely surprised by South Africa’s performance because last year they struggled in terms of team spirit and game strategy. For a team that has won the Rugby World Cup on two occasions, it was unusual to see them lose to the likes of Japan and Italy. However, in the first Test in Pretoria they showed that they have learned from those mistakes and will prove very tough to beat with a new generation of players coming through. I was impressed with Malcom Marx, who converted from eighthman to hooker – it’s just impressive to witness those type of talents come out. I’m also pleased to see Siya Kolisi and Oupa Mohoje play well in the backrow, because representing South Africa is a dream come true from where they started. To see them in the very top arena of the game is fantastic.
Guy Novès has made eight changes to his team for the second Test. Your take?
France will definitely prove more challenging opponents for South Africa in Durban on Saturday, with the players from Clermont and Toulon having returned to the side. Noves made the call to rest them for the first Test, having played in the Top 14 final the week before. The returning players will be a good asset for the French team. I see them bouncing back after the 23-point defeat in Pretoria and really challenging the South Africans. However, the Springbok team is always strong and fights hard in every single area of the game. I felt that the Boks were particularly effective at the breakdown and tackle area in the first Test. They are really ruthless in those areas and we need to be aware of that and ensure that we generate momentum when we have possession and territory. We also need to improve our execution in the red zone and make a step up in terms of our defensive line and individual tackling. On an attacking front, the players have been given the freedom to play and they now need to be more clinical in the right areas of the field when they have ball possession.
What do you make of the South African-born players in the French side?
As a professional rugby player, you dream to play at the highest level possible and when you see the journey of Bernard le Roux and Scott Spedding you understand that it wasn’t easy at all to leave their country of birth and make the most of their new life in France. To be successful at club level and then manage to get picked for the French national team is a dream come true. I was born in Cameroon and grew up in France and first discovered rugby there playing for the local Clichy-based Club Sportif in Paris. It was big challenge to make it to the top as a foreign-born player in France and I’m really pleased to see the likes of Le Roux and Spedding in this position. I remember playing with Pieter de Villiers and Brian Liebenberg, both South African-born players, during my career and they added value to French rugby. Foreign-born players playing for France remains a hot topic in the country, but we must take into account that we are not unique in terms of embracing players who are born in other countries and qualify on residency grounds. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have all picked from players who have qualified to play for their adopted nations.
You played 63 Tests for France over a decade. What led to your longevity?
The key to my success as a player was definitely the fact that I had the mentality of being the best player I could be. And to get that you need to draw inspiration and be open-minded to see how other players operate. I had to work really hard because after all it’s not just about your talent. Hard work and determination to be the best player possible was my recipe for success. I have been asked who my toughest opponent was and I can’t say it was Richie McCaw. We played in the same position and he is somebody I really admire and truly respect in terms of what he achieved as a rugby player and All Black captain. When I played against him I knew that I always had to be on the top of my game. However, as an opponent, he didn’t really impress me when we played against each other because I felt as though I always got the better of him in matches. I was able to beat the All Blacks twice in three starts. Meanwhile, I also hold a great record against the Springboks – I played them on three occasions, between 2001 and 2006, and ended up with a 100 percent win record.
What is holding French rugby back from becoming a force in world rugby?
I believe the potential of French rugby is high because we possess one of the best national competitions in world rugby. However, the bottom line is that we struggle to make the most of the French players. We need to make French players the first-choice of all the teams and it’s one of the areas we need to change. Bernard Laporte, as the new president of the FFR, is starting to change that and the aim is to get more talented French players playing for the first-teams at club level. I believe the professional era in France is still young and it is not really experienced in that manner. People need to understand that if we don’t develop young players through the academy systems and get them playing at the highest level, we are not going to have a very competitive national team. We have an exciting young generation of French players, but they need to be given the opportunities to develop at their clubs so that they can make a smooth transition to Test level.
What are the ways in which we can grow the oval-shaped game in Africa?
The Serge Betsen Academy is the way in which I am helping to grow the game in Africa. It’s a charity I created 14 years ago to assist underprivileged children through education, sport and health care. The greatest lesson that rugby taught me was to take time to care for others. My whole life in rugby has been a gift. To be paid for my passion for 20 years was incredible and this is my way of giving back. We use rugby to teach the values and standards to underprivileged children in Cameroon. I believe World Rugby has the resources and tools to empower more charities like mine. To be recognised by an organisation like World Rugby would be of great benefit to us and the sport itself. Ever since I started this amazing work, I have been doing it by myself with the help of 30 volunteers. It has been challenging, but also extremely rewarding. It’s a passion project and I am really pleased that we look after many children every year. And if we get World Rugby’s support, we could have a positive effect on the lives of even more underprivileged kids on the African continent.